Ending a 27-monthslong mandate on Monday, South Korea lifts mandatory masking at most indoor spaces except for on public transportation and at hospitals. But confusion lingered among students, teachers and workers demanding accurate and detailed guidelines for schools and workplaces. The eased indoor mask mandate still requires people to wear masks in special circumstances, as the risk of getting COVID-19 is still relatively high here, they said. At schools, for example, masks will still be mandatory when students board buses together or when they participate in group events and at pharmacies located inside retail stores.
A second grade elementary school student named Lee Sang-hyun who lives in Gangnam-gu, Seoul, has never experienced mask-free school life as he entered elementary school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee said he will keep wearing masks regardless of the regulation changes. “I will keep wearing masks because I think it will be dangerous. I've been used to it for two years, so it's not that uncomfortable,” he said.
Some teachers said there won't be a dramatic change at schools as some students, especially those in teenage groups, have not been following the rules from months before.
"This easing of mask obligations doesn't feel like such a dramatic change," said Jang Hwa-kyung, a high-school teacher in Incheon, adding that she thinks it is about time to ease the regulations.
"In the early days of COVID-19, children followed the rules, but as time went by, their awareness decreased. As I recall, the mask mandate has not been strictly followed since last summer," Jang said, adding that there are many obstacles to fully monitoring her students.
“Teachers can make students wear masks during class time, but honestly, it is impossible to keep it that way during break times. Also, kids take off their masks anyway during lunch and dinner times."
Many private cram school, or hagwon, officials are reacting cautiously to the partial lifting of the indoor mask mandate. An association of private institutes in Gangnam recommended the students to wear masks by February.
A teacher at DaechiPL Academy in Gangnam-gu said that opinions are divided among teachers. "Some teachers say they will encourage everyone to wear masks, while others say they will only ask children with cold symptoms to wear it. But as it is not an obligation anymore, it will be hard to enforce if children resist."
He also hinted that to adolescents, masks are sometimes considered a way to cover one’s face rather than as a protective measure against the virus. "Some children said they would keep wearing masks to cover their faces because they are worried about their appearance, aside from COVID-19."
Kwon Young-joo, who runs a hagwon in Yeonsu-gu, Incheon, is also cautious about drastic change. "Personally, I’d like to examine the trend of the virus afterwards, and then decide whether to take off masks in my hagwon," she said.
Kwon added that she is being more cautious, as most of her students are from elementary school.
Citizens outside the educational field also showed conflicting reactions. While some are excited to greet mask-free life, some are concerned about the ongoing pandemic.
Kim Da-ul, 19, showed caution and excitement at the same time.
“It has been a while since I didn't feel the need to wear a mask much. But as the COVID-19 virus is still around us, I will try to wear a mask in a closed place with many people,” he said.
A male in his mid-20s named Lee Chang-seong welcomed the government’s decision to ease the mask mandate, saying it should have been eased months ago.
"But still, we have to wear masks on public transportation, so it doesn’t feel like complete freedom,” Lee said.
Although he is happy about the change, Lee pointed out that some of the regulations are not sensible. “There are some ambiguities, such as the regulation that you don't have to wear masks inside a subway station, but you have to wear it inside the train. But I am trying to overlook such doubtful points, as similar ambiguities have been continuously spotted in previous COVID-19 quarantine policies,” he said.
On the other hand, Han Soo-bin, a graduate student who spends most of her time in classrooms and private educational institutions, was skeptical.
"The resurgence is still serious. I don't know if it's the right time to remove the indoor mask mandate. Personally, I intend to keep wearing masks at classrooms," Han said.
Meanwhile, the daily number of newly confirmed COVID-19 patients has gradually decreased since marking a peak of 80,000 on Jan. 2. The patient number increased slightly after the Lunar New Year holiday, but dropped to below 20,000 since Friday. As of 12:00 a.m. Sunday, the number of newly confirmed COVID-19 patients was 18,871, and the cumulative number of confirmed patients was 30,149,601.